Fire Chiefs Roundtable

April 15, 2011

Firehouse® Magazine recently asked a sampling of fire chiefs for their opinions about apparatus purchasing, especially in light of the current economic situation. We selected chiefs from various regions to gain a snapshot of what fire departments are doing to maintain and upgrade their fleets. Additionally, we wanted to learn how new safety and environmental-protection equipment is performing in the field, with the idea of sharing what’s working and what’s not. The roundtable was conducted by Firehouse® Staff Writer Ed Ballam.


TY DICKERSON is the chief of Lexington, VA, Fire & Rescue. He is a 33-year veteran of the fire service in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware and is responsible for oversight of the department’s Fleet Management and Apparatus Replacement programs. He attended University of Maryland, Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute (MFRI), National Fire Academy and University of Delaware. He is a Certified Fire Officer.

KEVIN ESTER is a battalion chief with the San Diego, CA, Fire-Rescue Department. He has been with the department for 26 years and has nearly 30 years in the fire service. He currently serves as San Diego’s fleet liaison officer and is responsible for all aspects of vehicle and apparatus specification, procurement, inspection and outfitting. He liaisons with the city’s Fleet Services Division to ensure Fire-Rescue’s needs are met with in-service and reserve apparatus.

ROBERT McGRATH is chief of the Stamford, CT, Fire Department, a position he has held for 11 years. He is a 40-year veteran of the Stamford Fire Department. In 2002, he developed a plan to update fire apparatus in the city using an apparatus committee. The concept was to replace a well-worn fleet with a standardized fleet provided by one manufacturer. Since the plan was implemented, the department has purchased 15 vehicles.

DAVID REEVES is a district chief with a Syracuse, NY, Fire Department. He is a 37-year veteran with Syracuse. He has been the chairman of the department’s Apparatus Advisory Committee since its creation in 1996. Currently, he is administrator and superintendent of the Division of Maintenance for the department with responsibilities for design, specification, acceptance and maintenance of approximately 100 vehicles.

J. GORDON ROUTLEY is a division chief assigned as the technical advisor to the fire director in Montreal, Canada. He previously served as fire chief in Shreveport, LA; as assistant to the fire chief in Phoenix, AZ; and as safety officer in Prince George’s County, MD. He is a fire protection engineer and has been very active in the cause of fire fighter health and safety, working with fire departments and fire service organizations across the United States and Canada.

Q: What impact, if any, have the current economic conditions had regarding your annual apparatus purchasing to replace in-service units?

DICKERSON: Lexington is considering rehab of some units, especially ambulances, in the future to extend their life and improve safety and performance instead of purchasing new units. We may also be forced to push back some of the purchases currently expected in our Apparatus Replacement Plan. We are fortunate to have a replacement plan that is supported by the city manager and mayor and council and has some annual contributions toward its funding, even if it is not 100%.

ESTER: The life cycle on all of our vehicles has been extended by two years, with light vehicles going a minimum of nine years and heavy apparatus going 17 years. We have been fortunate to continue our fleet-replacement program without significant impact, but are reviewing underutilized vehicles in the fleet (less than 5,000 miles per year) for reassignment or elimination.

McGRATH: We have had to cancel a new pumper that was awarded through the bid process and are now restricted from purchasing any future apparatus due to the economy.

REEVES: Trying to keep new apparatus coming into the fleet in the current economic climate presents some daunting challenges. For Syracuse, the key to success has been long-range planning. Starting in 1997, we established a six-year Capital Improvements Program for apparatus replacement that is updated every fiscal year. It calls for the acquisition, in alternating years, of two engines and one in a continuous cycle. Specialized apparatus, such as heavy rescues or hazmat vehicles, are requested according to a prudent replacement schedule.

With the current difficult economy, we have had to scale back during some years – but having a long-range plan has enabled us to provide the City Council with a well-thought-out plan with no surprises. The plan and the need for the apparatus it contains have been well-explained and justified to them, and they understand the difficulty that continually putting off major apparatus purchases will bring. Having that multi-year program enables them to work with us to keep at least some new apparatus coming within the limits of fiscal responsibility. It’s my job to keep them educated on what we need, why we need it and what it will cost both if we buy it and if we don’t.

I try to avoid buying more than two or three major units in any one year, as they will all grow old and need replacement at the same time and that may not be possible. A few apparatus at a time in a rolling replacement program has worked well for us and for the city, giving us some flexibility in the procurement schedule while still meeting the needs of our department and the citizens we serve.

ROUTLEY: We have been very fortunate in Canada that the economic crisis has not been as severe as the United States has experienced. We were able to complete a five-year apparatus-replacement program that included 40 pumpers and 30 aerial ladders, with delivery of the last 10 units expected in the coming months. We have delayed the purchase of a few specials units that were planned for 2011; however, we are still planning to move ahead with the next five-year replacement program.

Q: What has been your department’s experience with apparatus equipped with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2007 emissions engines in your fleet?

DICKERSON: We do not currently have any in our fleet at this time.

ESTER: We currently have about 30 heavy apparatus with 2007-compliant engines. Unfortunately, we have had major teething issues with a particular diesel engine installed in over 20 of these from 2007-2009. Our engine manufacturer’s dealer has been very helpful working through all of these issues and we now seem to have a more dependable system. We have seen a great deal of out of service time and repairs required. Fortunately, we have had no significant issues with our light-duty diesels.

McGRATH: We have had no problems at all.

REEVES: The EPA 2007 requirements largely concerned the introduction of ULSD (ultra-low-sulfur diesel) fuel in an attempt to reduce diesel engine emissions. We have not noticed any particular issues versus the older engines. We used Detroit Diesel engines almost exclusively in the past, from 8V71s through 8V92Ts to Series 60s. Our newest units use the Cummins ISM. Overall drivability is still good, response is still good and fuel mileage is slightly improved.

ROUTLEY: We transitioned to the 2007 engines about halfway through the five-year program. So far, the units with 2007 engines have performed well, with no major maintenance problems.

Q: Are you currently operating any apparatus with the EPA 2010 emissions engines and, if so, what has been your experience up to this time?

DICKERSON: We do not have any of these units in our fleet.

ESTER: We purposely arranged with our apparatus manufacturer to install 2009 engines in our 2010 apparatus order, just to not be at the “tip of the spear” on 2010-compliant issues. Our first 2010-compliant heavy apparatus will be here at the end of calendar 2011.


REEVES: Yes, we do have a few, so far. The EPA 2010 engines have to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s more stringent diesel emission standards regarding discharges of particulate matter (soot and ash) and nitrogen oxide (NOx), virtually eliminating these emissions from on-road diesel engines. These new “cleaner” engines do present some unique challenges for fire service use, including the “regeneration” mode for self-cleaning. The increased complexity of these engines has mainly meant more continuing education for my mechanics – something we have stressed during my tenure as superintendent of maintenance. The apparatus we currently have with the 2010-spec motors are, obviously, still relatively new, so we don’t have a lot of history with them yet. I guess the jury is still out regarding their long-term reliability, but the over-the-road trucking industry will certainly uncover those problems long before we do.

ROUTLEY: The units that are being assembled at this time will be our first deliveries with 2010 engines. We are cautiously optimistic.

Q: What is your department’s procedure for handing engine re-generations and what training do you provide to the personnel in the field to conduct this process?

DICKERSON: Not applicable.

ESTER: Up until this point, all regens required a mechanic to use a laptop to initiate the regen. This was because we found the regen process often failed to complete due to some mechanical issue (low fuel pressure, low exhaust temps, etc.). Utilizing a laptop was the only way to monitor the cleaning process and know if a regen failed to complete.

Now that the dependability has been improved, we are going to roll out operations training via our Internet-based training program. Two presentations will be available, and one will serves as a complete overview of the diesel particulate filter systems and levels of regen. This will be required training for all personnel.

The second presentation will be a more direct how to do a regen. We currently have four regen systems from two custom chassis manufacturers and two different commercial chassis. We have created a single process that will work on all of our vehicles. This will be required training for all personnel with Class A or B licenses. We do not use the firefighter-restricted license.

There will also be a laminated card in the Engineers Manual on all DPF (diesel particulate filter)-equipped apparatus, and a tracking sheet to document regen frequency, date, mileage and hours.

McGRATH: Not applicable.

REEVES: Regeneration has not yet presented any great inconvenience. It can be overridden or aborted if the circumstances demand it. Our mechanics are well-versed in the principles and operation of the system, and company personnel using apparatus equipped with regeneration are given a brief overview of what they can expect to see on the dashboard, what that means to them, and how to conduct or interrupt the procedure safely. We have had a few regenerations in the busier companies that accumulate mileage and engine hours more rapidly, and no serious issues have presented themselves so far.

ROUTLEY: Our operator training program for the new apparatus explains the regeneration process. No significant problems have been reported so far.

Q: What percentage of your fleet is equipped with safety technologies such as frontal or side airbags, roll stability control or other devices, and can you attribute any accident reductions by having these components on your apparatus?

DICKERSON: Currently, 20% of our fleet has the Pierce safety features and we are very happy with them and look forward to improving on the safety of our future purchases.

ESTER: Including our year-end deliveries, we’ll have nearly 30 apparatus with side airbags and roll stability. This will include engines, trucks and water tenders. I cannot definitively say that these devices have prevented accidents, but isn’t that the point?

We have utilized all-position disc brakes, engine compression brakes and electromagnetic driveline brakes on our engines and trucks for a number of years now, with very good results. Not only has brake life dramatically improved, but the proper use of secondary braking devices leaves your foundation brakes ready to give the best braking capability possible. This has undoubtedly attributed to accident reductions too.

McGRATH: We do not have any apparatus so equipped.

REEVES: Only a small percentage of the fleet – about 25% of our major apparatus groups – is equipped with any of the newest safety technology. That number will increase, of course, as more new apparatus is acquired. We will certainly include as much of this technology as the manufacturers offer – safety isn’t optional.

All of our newer small apparatus, such as EMS squads and chiefs’ cars, include a lot of the newest safety technology. We did have one major crash where a car T-boned one of our district chief’s Suburbans and the deployment of the front and side airbags was almost certainly a factor in preventing serious injury to our member.

The roll stability control is a great feature on the larger pieces – you can definitely feel it working, but don’t ask me how I know that! We are also starting to incorporate the “black box” data recorders into new apparatus as well, and a large part of the acceptance of this system is educating the firefighters as to how it can be used to defend their actions after an incident. Their part, of course, is to keep those actions defensible.

ROUTLEY: The apparatus that has been delivered was specified before many of the advanced safety systems were widely available. We will be including them in the next five-year program.

Q: What improvements or changes in fire apparatus design would you like to see in the future and made more affordable for department’s to integrate into their apparatus?

DICKERSON: I would like to see regulators consider providing the fire service with an exemption to the requirements that make the regeneration necessary similar to what has been given to Department of Defense vehicles. Overall, the percentage of our vehicles as compared to the total number of diesel vehicles on the road and the importance of our mission and the need to be ready to respond at all times should be considered. Manufacturers, code committees and others involved in designing and building fire and rescue vehicles need to always look at this from the end user’s perspective. It has to be practical to use or the firefighters will find a way around it!

ESTER: We are very fortunate to have fire apparatus in the City of San Diego that are safe and functional for our crews and effective in performing their mission. Our challenge seems to be standardization in an ever-changing industry. Operating a larger fleet, I’m not interested in chasing the “next great thing.” We find what works and try to stick with it, changing only when it makes sense and is of marked benefit to our mechanics or firefighters. That said, we are not afraid to say that something doesn’t work for us and move on.

While we currently build a very custom fire apparatus for our city, a more standardized approach to apparatus construction would benefit all of us with reduced costs and simplification. Manufacturers are building what we each are asking for – but we as the fire service need to agree that what works for you may work for me, and get some economies of scale working for us. We have way too many options today – and all of those options have a cost that we all pay for.

McGRATH: I’d like to see frontal and side-impact airbags and stability control as standard equipment.

REEVES: There’s always room for improvement in ergonomics and the overall cab environment. It’s a continuing challenge for manufacturers to meet the cooling requirements of the higher-horsepower engines we all love so well while still providing enough space for the crew to ride and function safely. While increased glass area is a plus for visibility, it can be a problem in a crash. Better cab integrity and survivability continues to evolve as a result of crash testing and incorporation of modern automotive safety systems. Some manufacturers have made efforts to decrease overall apparatus size by moving components around, and while some of them show promise, they all involve compromises of one sort or another. You can only configure the same basic components so many ways, and moving any one of them affects the others.

Some may contend that the “next leap forward” will be in motive power, be it electric, hydrogen fuel cells or whatever. The mainstream trucking industry will be the trendsetter for any such sweeping change and, at the moment, I don’t see it occurring any time soon.

Cab and body construction materials may grow to include more use of composites and/or carbon fiber, but again, you may be up against a cost factor there. It’s difficult to see how custom fire apparatus, as we now understand the term, can be made “more affordable.” The number of choices available to the buyer, and our unwillingness to compromise on what we as end users “must have,” conspire to keep the cost of this type of apparatus high.

In Syracuse, we have tried to standardize our types of apparatus as much as possible to increase efficiency and be more cost-effective, but this will always be problematic when the apparatus is purchased via competitive bid. Different manufacturers do the same things in slightly different ways.

ROUTLEY: We are looking at all of the advanced safety systems that have become available, including improved seatbelts and ergonomic improvements, to improve the safety and functionality of new apparatus. The space that is available inside the cab for the driver and officer is a particular concern.

We will also be looking closely at horsepower requirements based on vehicle weight and performance standards in order to achieve an appropriate balance between horsepower and fuel economy. We will be looking at configurations that are smaller, more maneuverable and lighter weight than the previous generation. Energy saving options, including auxiliary power systems that reduce idling time for the vehicle engine will receive serious consideration with the emphasis on green technology.

We are also placing an emphasis on durability and reliability in our future apparatus. We want the best technology, but we also need vehicles that will withstand heavy use without excessive maintenance and repairs.

Q: What impact has your department seen with an increase in annual responses with higher maintenance costs for the size of your department’s fleet?

DICKERSON: Like most others, we are seeing rising costs as we keep vehicles in service longer and run more and more calls every year. Newer rigs have many features that previous generations of apparatus did not have, but those items come with additional maintenance and repair costs and are more complex, sometime resulting in additional down time for the units while awaiting repairs.

ESTER: Obviously, more runs and use are going to equate to additional maintenance costs. For instance, we have several 2002 engines with upward of 140,000 miles and 7,000-8,000 hours of operation. These will be soon going into reserve status.

Where we are feeling this impact the greatest now is with our truck companies, as a result of engine company brownouts. The paramedic-staffed trucks are now picking up much of the call volume for those closed engines, and showing the wear and tear. We are seeing increased downtime for maintenance and repairs issues.

All material costs have increased, from fluids to tires and everything in between. As the budget is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, we will work to remind our folks of how their actions can directly affect the bottom line. Driving habits and preventable accidents are two areas we can influence with minimal effort.

McGRATH: We have experienced an increase in maintenance costs and general wear and tear due to the fact that we also do first-responder medical call with our pumpers, rescues and ladder trucks.

REEVES: In 1961, the Syracuse Fire Department answered approximately 5,000 alarms with 21 engines, eight trucks and about 500 personnel. In 2010, we answered over 25,000 alarms with 10 engines, six trucks and fewer than 400 personnel. The private-sector theme of doing more and more with less and less is very familiar to us all.

We respond to these alarms over roads that are falling apart year by year and competing for that crumbling road space with some citizen we are sworn to serve and protect who has a cell phone in one ear and a 2,000-watt stereo threatening to blow his back window out at any moment. He has one eye on his GPS, one eye on his iPod and no thought for the massive piece of fire apparatus that’s right behind him.

Most of the increased size of that fire apparatus today is due to the ever-expanding mission they are asked to perform – it really is that simple. If you want to go back to smaller, simpler apparatus, you are not going to be able to carry everything we typically carry. It doesn’t require a genius to determine that a formula made up of larger, more complex fire apparatus combined with responding to a much greater number of alarms over increasingly deteriorated roads will equal increased maintenance costs.

We have instituted fleet-management and diagnostic software to track and plan our work, control our inventory of parts, and increase our efficiency. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s one we must continue to win. We have been able to extend the service life of our major apparatus through both in-house rebuilds and by using smaller vehicles as the “second piece” of all engine companies to handle EMS responses, thus decreasing wear and tear on the major pieces.

Making preventive maintenance a lifestyle rather than an afterthought has gone a long way toward keeping all apparatus in service. I’m sure the challenges the current economic conditions bring will continue to place increasing pressure on fire department maintenance divisions across the country.

We need to redouble our efforts to work smart, plan ahead, and keep those rigs on the street in the safe, well-maintained condition our personnel deserve. If we are to call ourselves professionals, we can do no less.

ROUTLEY: The Montreal Fire Department has experienced a major increase in activity due to expansion of the first-responder medical response program over the past three years. Many companies have doubled their responses over this period, causing a proportionate impact on apparatus maintenance costs. We will probably shorten the life-cycle expectancy that is used to plan our replacement program.

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